Oriflamme Canyon 50K was scheduled for March 21, 2011. Rain or shine, sleet or hail, gale force winds or not this race was going to happen. The San Diego weather gods had called for a high of 54 and a low of 32 at the 5000-foot start on Sunrise Highway. They promised that where we were headed, the desert floor would have a high of 70 and a low of 60. Sounded like the perfect day to run a 50K.
The night before a group of us – Stephen, Mike, David, Krista, Jeff Coon, his girlfriend and myself – stopped off at Alpine Brewing Company to fuel up. After enjoying a nice healthy dinner (fried pickles, sausage and cheese plate, hot wings and French fries) we drove the rest of the way to Fosters Lodge where we spent the night. All night long you could here the wind howling outside the lodge as we drifted off to sleep.
Morning came early and we all began to don our ultra running gear as we ate a light snack. Arm warmers, calf sleeves, Injinji socks, backpacks and hats were carefully pulled on. Carl was performing his foam roller routine while Kirby discussed the benefits of Body Glide vs. Trislide to prevent friction in all the right places. Jeff was the first to leave as he wanted an early start. His legs were still weary from the Rocky Road 100 he had completed just weeks prior. As we saw him to the door we realized the San Diego weather gods were a little off this year. It was cold, pea-soup-like foggy and windy at hurricane-force.
“Hopefully it will change quickly,” I thought, “We are in the mountains after all.”
The rest of us piled into our cars and headed off to the starting area nine miles down the highway. The fog was so thick that we had to drive slowly and watch the white lines in order to stay in our single lane. You could feel the winds trying to throw my Subaru Outback off the highway (later a runner’s watch would literally get ripped off her wrist by a wind gust!)
“This is going to make today’s race a little more interesting,” I thought.
We pulled into the parking area as runners milled about. As I exited my car I immediately made the decision that this would be a jacket and glove day. It would turn out to be one of the better running decisions I ever made. I checked in and asked Ron to help me get my bib secured to my shorts. The wind was whipping so badly I couldn’t seem to hold the bib, safety pins and my shorts all at the same time.
Once that was accomplished we all began to gather near the start. The race director, John Martinez, notorious for loudly proclaiming the 1-minute-til-start-time announcement, was right on-time as usual. I instructed some of our ultra-rookies to stay near the front so they did not get held up in the back by some of the slower runners. My philosophy is to start fast, keep a good pace on the single track, then allow faster runners to get by you if necessary. There have been too many races where I have gotten caught behind a slow runner on single track trail who did not have enough trail etiquette to simple move out of the way.
The plan worked well. We took off down the PCT in the freezing cold morning the winds literally blowing so hard you would sometimes get physically knocked off the trail. I thought about Janelle, all 120 pounds of her. Since I am 180 and the winds were throwing me around what must this feel like to her? This was her first ultra. It is hard enough to run a 50K in the mountains. Now she would have to do it with Mother Nature trying to blow her off the side of a mountain!
I began to slow and moved to the side of the single track to allow some faster runners to pass. I high-fived with Jose-Luis from our running club, the Dirt Devils, then Wes, the official Dirt Devil Brewmeister. As Janelle and Stephen Kirby approached I fell in and we raced off towards Oriflamme Canyon the winds whipping my face. I heard an experienced runner behind me say, “It is all about just finishing today”. I could not agree more.
We got to Oriflamme Canyon and stopped for a quick gel to fuel up before running the five miles downhill. The fog was beginning to clear but the winds were not. At least we would be running downhill. We descended the canyon, picking our way around boulders and rocks. No one was talking. If you want to run fast down Oriflamme Canyon you have to pay attention. One slip up and you will be picking rocks out of your teeth. I followed Stephen and Janelle down the canyon until we hit the desert floor. “2500 feet,” I announced. Not only could I breathe better but I felt better at the lower altitude. Now we would have to contend with the beach-like sand of the desert floor.
I ran down the jeep road expecting to see the entrance to Box Canyon any minute. This year it was marked expertly so that no one could miss it. Last year an ultra-novice missed the tape and ran off into the desert. I hung a left at the cactus marked with orange tape and began the slow ascent through Box Canyon. The turnaround/halfway point was at the end of the Canyon. Once there, I would fill my pack with water, eat a gel see if I could catch back up with Janelle and Stephen.
Running back through Box Canyon I passed a bunch of Dirt Devils and other runners I recognized. I shouted hello and extended my hand for a few high-fives as they passed. “Running down Box Canyon is much easier than running up,” I thought. Soft sand is hard to run in anyway but going downhill is much easier than slogging uphill in it. As I was enjoying the descent I caught a glimpse of Janelle rounding a bend in the canyon. I had a second wind so I sped up and caught her right before the next aid station.
At the aid station we chatted with ultra-volunteer Enrique and he was kind enough to take our picture as well. Kevin Bump also announced he was sweeping the last 13 miles of the race.
“Poor bastard,” I thought, “He has no idea what he actually volunteered for.” Trekking out of Oriflamme Canyon is no joke. 2500 feet of elevation gained in 5 miles of relentless switchbacks.
Later, at the after party he would say that was the hardest 13 miles he ever ran. The sad part was that Janelle and I were headed for that 2500 feet and it was the only way out of the desert and to the finish line. After running 20 miles of windy and sandy trails we would have to put our heads down and run/walk the death march known as Oriflamme Canyon. Why do we sign up for this shit?
We hit the hill with Julieann Storm in front, followed by me, then Janelle. I tried to wait for Janelle on the hill once or twice to make ultra-small talk. She was having none of it. She was quiet and determined. I’ve seen the look before so I decided to leave her to her own demons and made a game of trying to narrow the gap with Julieann. Switchback after switchback I narrowed the gap. Plodding forward, one foot in front of the other I narrowed the gap. I had the altitude setting on my Timex GPS showing on the watch face. I knew we were getting closer and only had about 500 feet and one mile to go before finding the familiar PCT single track trail again. It would be a welcome sight. No more climbing and a quick 5-mile run to the finish. I caught Julieann and struck up a conversation. I honestly do not think I have ever, ever seen anyone look so happy at this stage of an ultramarathon. She was talkative and smiling and ready to get to the PCT and run! What an inspiration. She and I waited for Janelle allowing all three of us to arrive at the PCT together. The she was gone.
Janelle and I took time to change back into our jackets. The wind was back and it was still really cold. When we passed through the last aid station I scored a brownie and waited for Janelle to put her backpack on. She reminded me that this was the furthest she had ever run. She had done traditional road marathons before but nothing like this. I took her picture at mile 26.3 and told her I would see her at the finish. Once again I set off to see if I could catch Julieann. I did at mile 29. I slowed down to allow her to stay in front of me by 100 yards or so. I think it is polite to allow someone to have the finish line to themselves instead of crossing together. I stayed back and watched her descend the last 50 yards of single track into the finish before I entered the finishing chute.
I came across the finish line totally happy to be done. All the usual suspect were there. I found out that Kirby had beat Carl ☺ and that Joe-Luiz finished 10 minutes in front of me. Wes and David had crushed the course with a 5:26 and were in the process of playing bartender. Wes had brewed beer just for this occasion. Soon after Janelle came across in 6:25 and she was followed by many other Dirt Devils.
The Oriflamme Canyon 50K is no joke. In many ways it is harder than 50 mile races I have run. The 5-mile ascent at mile 20 from 2500 feet to 5000 feet is extremely difficult. The winner of the race ran it in 4:11. That is 2 hours and 9 minutes faster than I ran it. That means he had to have run up Oriflamme Canyon. When I imagine how I struggled just walking up it I am astounded and jealous at his ability to run uphill.
If you want to train for an epic journey and do not mind hills, then sign up for Oriflamme Canyon 50K 2012. Who knows, maybe next year mother nature will slap us with a blizzard.